The classic Universal Monsters film series has continued to resonate with classic horror movie fans for nearly a hundred years. Anchored by some of the most iconic movie monsters, the Universal Monsters stable includes Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Phantom of the Opera, the Invisible Man, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.
Carl Laemmle Jr. saw the future in 1931 and the future looked scary.
The son of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, the junior Laemmle had served as the studio’s head of production since 1928, helping the studio transition to the talkie era and earning acclaim for efforts like All Quiet on the Western Front and Waterloo Bridge. Those efforts didn’t always translate into profits for Universal, which would prove a problem for Junior, and Universal, later in the decade – but in 1931, both found tremendous success by unleashing a string of horror films on an unsuspecting moviegoing public.
Dracula, with its chilling lead performance by the Hungarian-born Béla Lugosi, arrived in February.
Frankenstein, featuring the English-born Boris Karloff as the mad scientist’s stitched-together creation, followed in November.
Karloff returned in The Mummy in 1932, followed by Claude Rains as The Invisible Man in 1933.
That remarkable early-’30s run debuted one now-iconic movie character after another, the collaborative work of the films’ stars; directors Tod Browning, James Whale, and Karl Freund; the studio’s in-house writing talent; and makeup and effects wizards like Jack Pierce and John P. Fulton.
It also established the trademarks of a Universal monster movie, combining macabre atmospheres and shocking flashes of violence – sometimes the object of censorship – with monsters that were often as pitiable as they were scary and stories that tapped into deeper themes of death, compulsion, and insanity. It buoyed the studio’s fortunes (for a while) and helped make Universal synonymous with horror.
From there the story twists. The Laemmle family lost control of Universal in 1936 and the studio lost interest in horror – but only momentarily.
1939 saw the release Son of Frankenstein, the second sequel to Frankenstein after Bride of Frankenstein. Its success stirred a new wave, leading to sequels to Dracula, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man, and the introduction of The Wolf Man, a new icon brought to life by Lon Chaney Jr., the defining star of the ’40s run (though a star often pushed well beyond his limitations of his abilities).
The revival soon turned into a tangle of sequels and crossovers impressive in their ability to combine the studio’s monsters’ stories (if not always for their quality). It culminated in a series of unlikely, but successful, team-ups with one of the studio’s other star attractions: the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
The 1950s saw the creation of one last iconic monster, the Gill-man, star of The Creature From the Black Lagoon. A creation made for the atomic age, and with moviegoers more enthralled by science fiction than musty old castles, the Gill-man became a hit. But he also brought the classic monster era to a close. Then came a long afterlife of rediscovery and renewed appreciation, first via baby-boomer fandoms created by TV reruns and magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, then via home-video rereleases, and, most recently, via streaming services.
Top 10 classic Universal monster movies
1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
If a monster movie could double as a tragedy, as the original Frankenstein did, what else could it be? That’s the question driving Whale’s sequel, in which the Monster finds his voice, demands a bride, and experiences heartbreak.
2. The Mummy (1932)
Karloff returned the next year playing a different sort of monster, though one just as sympathetic in his own way. Directed by Karl Freund – a German immigrant already esteemed for a cinematography career that included Metropolis and Dracula – The Mummy bears little relation to the stories of stumbling, bandage-wrapped killers that filled its sequels. Karloff plays Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian high priest awakened from his slumber by English archeologists.
3. Frankenstein (1931)
Eager to capitalise on the success of Dracula, Carl Laemmle Jr. pushed more horror films into production, but this James Whale–directed adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel feels anything but rushed. It also doesn’t bear that much resemblance to Shelley’s novel, using the plot as raw material to create a kind of dark fairy tale about loneliness, scientific overreach, and the thin lines dividing God and humanity, the living and the dead.
4. The Invisible Man (1933)
Universal’s monster movies owe much of their enduring success to director James Whale, a graceful and inventive stylist with a sharp wit and a deep sense of humanity. That didn’t always mean casting humanity in a flattering light, however, as with this adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel about a chemist who cracks the secret of invisibility. Claude Rains stars as Jack Griffin, a man who’s already learned the secret of disappearing as the film opens.
5. The Wolf Man (1941)
Son of Frankenstein provided the jolt of electricity that revived Universal’s monster movies in 1939, but it took two years for the studio to create a new classic monster. One finally arrived via The Wolf Man, Universal’s second swing at a werewolf movie after Werewolf of London. To create the creature, Pierce used a design created for but unused in that previous film; it’s a half-human, half-lupine look that perfectly suits another monster who’s as pitiful as he is fearsome.
6. The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
The second Universal monster movie craze petered out in the early-’50s with the creature-packed crossover films and Abbott and Costello team-ups. With The Creature From the Black Lagoon the studio found a creature suited for atomic age audiences. Drawn by evidence of a missing evolutionary link between humans and sea creatures, a group of scientists travels to the Amazon. There they find more proof than they can handle in the form of the Gill-man, who kills to defend his turf but develops an attraction to the beautiful Kay (Julie Adams).
7. Dracula (1931)
Universal would never have become synonymous with monster movies were it not for one film: Dracula, which brought Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel to the screen by way of a hit play written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. And though producer Carl Laemmle Jr. entertained the idea of casting other actors as its bloodsucking Count, the film wouldn’t’t have worked nearly as well if it didn’t retain the play’s star, the Hungarian-born Béla Lugosi.
8. Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) wants nothing to do with his late father’s resurrecting-the-dead business when he moves back to Castle Frankenstein, but his life takes a funny turn after meeting the malevolent Ygor (Lugosi) and uncovering the body of the Monster (Karloff, for the last time).
9. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
By 1948, neither Abbott and Costello nor the monsters were quite the box-office draws they used to be, but they proved to be a winning combination when Universal paired them for this monster-packed crossover. Chaney returns as Wolf Man, who does his best to warn Bud and Lou about the imminent arrival of Dracula (Lugosi, reprising his Dracula role for the first time) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange).
10. The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
The first and best of the latter-day quasi-sequels to The Mummy. The Mummy’s Hand follows a recently unemployed archeologist, Steve Banning (Dick Foran), and his bumbling pal Babe (Wallace Ford), as they search for the long-lost tomb of Princess Ananka – unaware that doing so means running afoul of a sect that keeps watch over her tomb and the mummy of Kharis (Tom Taylor).
Basil Gogos – Illustrator
Basil Gogos (March 12, 1929 – September 13, 2017) was an American illustrator best known for his portraits of movie monsters which appeared on the covers of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in the 1960s and 1970s. He who painted penetrating and chilling colour portraits of movie monsters like Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Phantom of the Opera, and imbued Frankenstein’s monster with notable compassion.
In Gogos’s 1969 portrait of Frankenstein’s monster, as played by Karloff, his eyes are downcast, his demeanour is sorrowful. The background is dramatically illuminated by a single glowing candle. The menace that Gogos brought to his portrait of Lugosi’s Dracula is absent from his vision of the monster first imagined by Mary Shelley.
Gogos painted other actors who were cast as the monster, including Glenn Strange, Christopher Lee and Fred Gwynne, who played a wacky, very human version in the 1960s sitcom The Munsters. But he had a special affection for Boris Karloff, who died a few months before Gogos’s 1969 portrait was published on the cover of Famous Monsters.
Gogos created many of his paintings from black-and-white still photographs of films made at various studios, most significantly Universal, which started making monster movies in the 1920s. He painted a bug-eyed King Kong with his mouth agape; the Creature From the Black Lagoon as a red-lipped, amphibious humanoid; Lon Chaney in London After Midnight as a top-hatted ghoul with blood dropping from his mouth; and Karloff as the intense, wrinkled, fez-wearing Ardath Bey in The Mummy.
Gogos was born on March 12, 1929, in Alexandria, Egypt, to parents of Greek ancestry who had also been born in Egypt. His father, Steve, was a railroad worker, and his mother, Maria, was a fashion designer. After living in Boston and Washington, they moved to Manhattan, where they eventually opened a clothing shop. Young Basil’s uncle was an artist who encouraged him to paint, and his grandmother painted on dishes and fabrics to help support her family.
Gogos attended art schools in Washington and then studied with Frank Reilly, an artist and illustrator, at the Art Students League in Manhattan. While there, he made his first sale: the cover of Pursuit, a western novel.
He had begun illustrating adventure stories for various men’s magazines when monsters entered his life. In 1960, Jim Warren, the publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, asked him to paint a cover portrait of Vincent Price, the star of a new film by Roger Corman, House of Usher, based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Warren told Gogos that his painting needed to be something new and unusual, which Gogos found difficult to define.
After his agent handed in the Price illustration, Gogos recalled, Warren called and asked: “Where are you? Why aren’t you here so I can hug you and kiss you?”
Soon after, Gogos painted Gorge, a gigantic sea creature awakened by a volcanic eruption in a 1961 film, for another Famous Monsters cover.
Gogos said using stills from old black-and-white films helped him reimagine the monsters.
Gogos stopped illustrating monsters in the 1980s to pursue fine-art painting – abstracts, landscapes, wildlife scenes – and supported himself as a photo retoucher for United Artists and a storyboard artist at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. He also taught art classes.
He eventually returned to his old world of horrors. He illustrated covers for Monsterscene magazine, attended horror and science-fiction conventions, painted classic monsters for Topps’s Universal Monsters Illustrated cards in 1994 and took on commissions, like one for the cover of the heavy-metal musician Rob Zombie’s 1998 album, Hellbilly Deluxe.
Basil Gogos changed the face of classic horror with his film monster portrait art. Like a bizarro-world Norman Rockwell, he created magazine covers in horrifying yet dazzling images throughout the 1960s and ’70s. His intense colour and bold, impressionistic brushwork gave a unique sense of drama and sophistication to these iconic characters.
Today, collectors fight over his original art – but, with his book, every fan can own glowing full-colour reproductions of his most famous work as well as many previously unpublished paintings and drawings.
Source: vulture.com nytimes.com famousmonsters.com
Image: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster